Twenty years in the tower!

The clock in the tower at St Mary’s, Blackhill, is 136 years old and in 2015 needed £5000 to be fixed. I met the man who has maintained the clock in secret for the last 25 years.

Danny Roberts has maintained St Mary’s clock for more than 20 years, although he has had no formal training. The knowledge and skills were passed down to him by the clock’s previous caretaker, who learned from his predecessor, and so on.

Danny, a father of two from Blackhill, said: “They’ve got people who do all the activities in the parish and I’m the man nobody knows about. I’ve got no training; I’m just a member of the parish. There’s not many who can do it. It’s just been handed down and down.

“My wife’s uncle does the electricals if necessary, because some of that has to be official, but I do the mechanical side. I just look at it and think ‘That doesn’t work; that works; that moves; that doesn’t move.’”

As a boy, Danny used to get a pound for ringing the bells for Saturday morning weddings at St Mary’s, and years before, his grandfather used to wind the clock. These two separate pieces of information must have stuck in the minds of the parishioners.

Danny said: “Carol Watson maintained the clock before me, and he was getting on in years. It broke and he wasn’t fit to get up the stairs. Someone said, ‘What about Danny Roberts? He goes to church. He rang the bells as a kid.’ So I used to come up and have a look and see what it could be, and draw little pictures and then go and tell him, and he would suggest what to do. I just picked it up from there.”

In 20 years, Danny has regained some of the lost knowledge. He used to put pennies or two-pence pieces onto the pendulum, to speed it up or slow it down, before he worked out there was a way of regulating the pendulum by tightening or loosening a nut.

In that time, the clock has generally run … like clockwork. Danny says: “It’s only the third time there’s been a problem in 20 years. The last work was in 2009 on the South facing clock, which is one suffering the corrosion again this time. In 2009, it was just wear and tear. Possibly not a good job done previously. I’d expect it to last more than that.”

The last time something went wrong, Danny got in touch with Smiths of Derby, the firm that in 1935 bought out the clock’s makers, W Potts of Leeds. Potts of Leeds also made the clock for Christ Church in Consett town centre.

He said: “I asked them what kind of metal it was that had snapped and they got a bit shirty, because it’s basically the tricks of their trade – their ‘intellectual property’ – so they insisted they fix it themselves. I tried various metals, but it was one with a particular tensile strength. Obviously not a modern metal. So I had to let them do it.”

Danny is a Production Supervisor at Nicholson’s Sealants in Stanley, and has worked there for 37 years, so he knows about ‘modern metals’. He wanted to have a go at fixing the clock this time, but was deterred by safety issues. He said: “I think I could make the bit that’s needed. There’s nothing I can do from inside to repair it, so I would have got a cherry picker and done it myself from the outside, but for the Health and Safety.”

The other problem would be that Danny’s solution might be expensive and still not guaranteed to work. As Smiths are insured and have plenty of practice, Danny thought it wiser to leave it to them.

If he doesn’t spot problems with the clock himself, Danny relies on parishioners to tell him if it has stopped, or if the clocks are slow or out of sync. Then he resets them through a process of trial and error.

He said: “It’s much easier now. I just get someone outside on the mobile phone, and they can tell me what’s happening outside, when I adjust it inside. They can tell me ‘the long hand has dropped’. Or ‘it’s gone up to 10 and fallen back to 20’, and I can change it as is needed.”

The clock has two faces – towards south and east. As Danny says, “the south faces the slag heaps and the east faces the Blue Heaps.”

Former parish priest Canon Hugh McCartan paid with the money he got as a present from the parish for his Golden Jubilee as a priest to have the (9 carat) gold leaf replaced on the south face.

The clockworks live in the second storey of the tower at St Mary’s, with the bells above them and the bell-ringers’ room below. It’s a popular tower for visiting for bell-ringers. The bell-ringers’ room was formerly the choir, but was boarded off to stop drafts. The bells were originally lifted up through the tower and the floors were then ‘closed’ after them.

Danny said: “When the bells were first set, they were all swinging east to west, and it nearly brought the tower down. They’d been set by the men of the parish and were supposed to swing north, south, east and west. It would have been the third tower. The first came down when they were building it.”

The original church was never completed, but was destroyed by gales on Feb 21, 1855. A new larger, more grand church was then built in its place. The clock was added in 1883 according to a plaque on the inside workings. The bells would have been added around the same time.

Danny said: “St Mary’s has got eight bells. When the tower was built, there were only six and the heaviest was 22 hundredweight, but the bells were taken down and recast and turned to eight and now the heaviest is 15 and a half hundredweight.

“There are eight bells, but the clock only uses five – four for the chimes and one for the hour.”

In the 1850s, when the church was originally being built, the price for construction was less than £2,000. Now the cost of repairs to just the clock is nearly £5,000. Parishioners have decided to raise the money themselves rather than burden the parish, and thanks to fundraising activities and donations from two local councillors, they are nearly at their target. Any extra raised will be kept for future maintenance.

Danny is aware that he needs to nominate a clock-mender’s apprentice, but for the time being is happy to do it himself.

He said: “We are the only Catholic Church in the diocese which has a clock. There’s nobody who could take over from me, if, God forbid, something happened to me, or if I moved away.

“I’m sure it is never going to shut down. Nothing will go wrong as long as I’ve got breath in me. It’s not moving much, but it runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It’s a proper little forgotten corner. It’s like a vintage car. It’s just a lovely timepiece and I’m regulating it.”

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